UNION – The gym nestled in a subdivision two miles southeast of Donley’s Wild West Town is unique in every way.
Current membership numbers 10, all of whom are males between ages 13 and 18.
There are no monthly fees, although members’ parents occasionally will bring a case of water or Gatorade to stock the refrigerator.
All members are athletes in some sport – football, wrestling, swimming or baseball – and althought the gym lands just inside Huntley boundaries, those from other high schools also are welcome.
On many days, half the members will get off the bus together at Gary and Renee Swanson’s house, file into the house, gobble down some spaghetti, then a half hour later head to Swanson’s Gym Training Center, a 2,000-square foot garage.
Gary Swanson, 53, has a barrel chest, developed from almost 40 years of lifting weights and competing in powerlifting meets. Now he shares his knowledge by training teenagers, either for competition or just to get stronger for their respective sports. Three members of his team will compete in the American Powerlifting Federation Illinois State Championships on Saturday and Sunday at Rich East High School in Park Forest.
But the competition is just a small part of the journey for Swanson’s boys.
“I’ve always had the drive and always enjoyed training kids,” Swanson said. “I like the camaraderie with the kids. All the kids who started here have come a long way. My goal is to watch them play at whatever school they get a scholarship.”
Swanson has two NCAA Division I athletes this year – Huntley senior thrower Justin Herbert signed with Eastern Illinois University for track and field, and Huntley junior catcher-outfielder Mark Skonieczny committed to Illinois for baseball. Neither one is training during their seasons, but they will be back.
“Gary came to see me at the end of the school year and I had no idea what [the gym] was about,” Herbert said. “At the beginning of the school year, I went. My bench went up about 75 pounds. My squat numbers shot up like crazy and my deadlift numbers, people didn’t believe when I’d tell them.”
Herbert says he’ll be back in the summer to prepare himself for throwing in college. Skonieczny, whose father Mike trains with Swanson, has lifted with him for three years.
“He’s an awesome teacher and helper,” said Mark Skonieczny, who broke three APF state records as a freshman in the 182-pound class. “It gives me an advantage over most baseball players because other guys don’t lift hard enough. They think lifting and baseball don’t go together and they’ll hurt their arms.”
Skonieczny says Swanson, while coaching powerlifting, also preaches flexibility, so he has experienced no throwing difficulties.
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Jim Swanson, Gary’s older brother, played on Rockford East’s 1974 Class 4A state championship football team, which was quarterbacked by former Jacobs coach Dean Schlueter.
After Gary returned from a stint in the Navy, Jim was immersed in the powerlifting scene. At one point, Gary said Jim was ranked third in the world in his weight class.
Gary, a business representative for Local 150 Operating Engineers of Chicago, had his own powerlifting career cut short in 2002 by a horrendous injury. Some heavy equipment fell from a crane and crushed his right ankle and broke his right leg. Doctors said he would not walk again, but he does now with help from a cane.
Although he could not compete, he still could coach. The gym at Jim’s home in Rockford was their training spot for a while, then Gary moved some equipment into Going Vertical, Rocky Scalise’s speed and agility training center in Huntley.
Gary trained high school and junior high athletes there, as well as some Special Olympics athletes. He has no Special Olympics athletes now because of insurance issues, but he hopes to get the proper certification and train those athletes again.
Three years ago, Swanson built his garage into the current gym. He and Jim bought $150,000 of equipment from the former Powerhouse Gym in Crystal Lake for a mere $25,000. The floor is rubber and the garage is heated for winter workouts.
There are pictures of athletes who have competed and won on the wall, next to photos of the Northern Illinois Special Recreation Association athletes. Gary’s son Dominic’s first football jersey from his Huntley Youth Football Association team hangs on the wall, too.
On one wall is a flat-screen TV for those days or nights when the gym doubles as a sort of clubhouse for Dominic and his buddies.
As the boys leave, they see the words: “Train Like a Champion,” above the door.
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Dominic Swanson, Alec Newman and Cody Gaynor are the three boys from Gary’s gym who will compete this weekend. Gaynor, who lives in the neighborhood and comes with his twin freshman brothers, Dillon and James, has been lifting with Swanson since the fifth grade.
“Coming here relaxes me,” said Cody, a seventh-grader. “It takes stress off. This is my first meet, so [Gary] said he wants me to get used to it, but I’m going for the bench record (132 pounds) and the squat record (225).”
During a recent training session, Dominic, who is 218 pounds, did flat-bench presses with 105-pound dumbbells for four repetitions, while Gary was yelling encouragement two feet away. Gary says Dominic views the 185-pound dumbbells on the rack with that “some day” look in his eyes.
“He’s always on us, always making sure we’re doing the form and technique right,” Dominic said. “He’s always there, yelling and screaming to get us more motivated to lift.”
They listen to Gary Swanson. They realize he knows what he’s talking about. If they work hard and follow his coaching, they will see the results. Gary says he has others inquiring about coming to his gym after seeing what Dominic does in the weight room at Huntley.
And Gary loves all of it. So do the other fathers, who sit on lawn chairs watching a NASCAR race while their sons toss around some iron.
“Gary treats these kids like his own,” Mike Gaynor said. “It’s phenomenal what he does for them. All of us appreciate what he does for them, it’s way above and beyond.”